Friday, April 19, 2024
Home Change Makers How Youth Are Surviving On Sugarcane Business 

How Youth Are Surviving On Sugarcane Business 

by Jacquiline Nakandi
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By Umar Nsubuga

It is hot and the traffic is at a standstill. You feel like dozing, but you have to stay alert lest the traffic eases suddenly and you have to move. Any delays and the cars behind you start blasting their horns angrily. So you stay in that semi-awake mode, suffering the heat, the fuel fumes and the noises.

A sign by the roadside urges you to ‘Do the Dew’, but there is no Mountain Dew vendor in sight.

Suddenly, a young man comes loping along the road, bearing bundles of chopped-up sugar cane in colourless polythene bags (buveera).

Your eyes connect with his and a wordless message brings him to your window. You hand him a sh500 coin and he passes one of the bags to you. The man dashes off to another car and your boredom vanishes too, as you begin to chew on the juicy ‘cubes’.

There is a sugar cane craze among many drivers and passengers along busy roads. Traffic jams provide the perfect opportunity for one to get the cheap and convenient refreshment.

Or perhaps, it is merely the power of suggestion at work; people desire sugar cane because they can see it dangling outside the window, peeled and ready to eat.

Whatever the reasons for the craze, the demand and supply have met halfway and given birth to a booming business.

It used to be difficult to get sugar cane. It was bothersome to peel it. And you had to wait to get home before tearing into the sweet fibre. Now that has changed.

Abdul Matovu, 39, a former primary teacher from Luwero district, started this business with about seven to ten sugar canes six years ago. By that time, he says, there were only about seven of them supplying ready-to-eat sugar cane along Kwempe-Matugga road.

Today, about 35 sugar cane sellers come to this road daily from about 9:00am when the sun starts getting hot. They lean their wheelbarrows and some have bicycles.

Between 11:00am and 1:00pm, most of the sugar cane has been sold and they can return home. From 3:00pm and 8:00pm others join.

On bad days, like when the weather is cool or it rains, buyers are few.

The men sometimes end up having to dump the sugar cane because they would not want to carry heavy loads back home where there is no fridge.

Isaac Masinde is 19 years old; he says he left school after p.6, because “I could not stand being caned like a donkey by my step-mother”.

Masinde started selling sugarcane for someone else in 2016. 

He would take the boss’ sugarcane-laden bicycle and move around looking for customers. At the end of the day, he would take home sh3,000.

Last year he saved up enough to buy his bicycle-a rusty, probably third-hand machine that nevertheless serves him well. Today, he is one of the sugarcane runners.

He claims he makes sh20,000 a day in profit but he does not plan to go back to school. “I will buy a sewing machine and start a mobile money business”, he assures me.

For all his cheek, Masinde refuses to be photographed. Camera shyness is common among all of them. 

“I don’t want my schoolmates to see me,” explains Alex Muwanguzi.

He says that he sells sugarcane to make money for school fees and pocket money. 

On hygiene concerns, they argue that they never touch the sugar cane, to ensure that it remains very hygienic.

“We peel the sugarcane and chop it straight into the kaveera. Even when we have to transfer it to smaller kaveera, we don’t use our hands”, Masinde explains.

The mention of the word gowa draws sudden, sharp criticism. It is as if they have been stung by a nasty bee.

“Who said that we sell gowa? That person wants to fail our business”, one of them barks. ‘No, I have not said that,’ the offender explains, ‘I just mentioned the different types of sugarcane available.’

They insist that they sell a type of sugarcane known as kimyufu (the red one). The quarrel ends quickly and it is back to the normal camaraderie before I can ask them to explain the differences.

The market centre

Two days after buying a batch of sugarcane at Kawempe, I understand why the men were offended that people would think they sell gowa. This greenish type of sugarcane is not as juicy and sweet as what they sold. It has a spongy texture with a hint of salinity in the juice.

But you are less likely to have sugary stains around your lips. Nonetheless, there is an almost equal market share between the two varieties, mostly because there is a higher quantity of gowa. Of course, when you buy it peeled and chopped, there is no way you can distinguish between them, although keen eaters can tell.

Almost all the sugarcane on wholesale at Kawempe market centre was of the gowa variety. There was only one stalk of the kinubi variety, which is red like the kimyufu, but as ‘fat’ as gowa.

John Kibirango, a sugarcane farmer, says that most of the sugarcane comes from farms in Bombo, kiweda, Busiika, Namulonge among others.

They are mostly grown in wetlands all year round. There are big and tall stalks, known as first class, and then the slimmer ones.

Some of the big ones are almost half the height of the first discarded ‘heads’ which will be taken back for replanting.

It is a strange arrangement where all sections of the chain mix easily in the same place. It is difficult for an outsider to tell apart the farmers, wholesalers, retailers and those who go to the road as hawkers. Here, everyone gets down to their own business and they all relate in harmony.

Taut muscles strain against their shirts as they secure sugarcane cleverly on the carriers of the bicycles. Others have secured corners for peeling and chopping their sugarcane.

Moses Nsobya’s collection is almost exclusively of short stalks. He is one of the few who have a market stall, having given up the business of hawking clothes six years ago. The sugarcane business brought sweeter fortunes.

Most of the sugarcane which ends up neatly packed in Styrofoam trays in supermarkets and fruit salad bowls start its journey here.

“Those days sugarcane used to dry up in the market until we decided to move around and take the sugarcane where the people are. After some time, we realised that if we peeled them, we could get more customers who don’t have time to peel for themselves,” says Nsobya.

Muhammad Kiyemba grows sugarcane on five acres of land in Buwambo. He sells to the hawkers but also takes a keen interest in how they are managing their end of the chain, even though he has nothing to gain as they are not his agents.

“Some of these children are students desperate for school fees. I advise them on how to make the money,” he explains.

Kiyemba goes on to explain the advantages of sugarcane as a snack. 

“It has vitamins, which is good for immunity. Today, people are buying expensive vitamins in drug form yet here are natural alternatives,” he lisps through a gap in his teeth. 

He could have blushed, if possible when complimented on his knowledge. But amidst all the euphoria, a discouraging shadow looms over all of them.


The sugarcane traders are not happy with the Kampala City Council law enforcement officials.

“They are always persecuting us for selling by the road side. We don’t have the money to rent stalls in the market”, one of them complains.

“When will someone like me get sh500,000 to rent a market stall? I have to take care of my siblings. They don’t know that some of us lost our parents and we are the breadwinners”, one boy who looks about 17 years old interrupts bitterly. He does not even look up from what he is doing as he says this.

“We are just trying to survive. They should leave us or give us rules on how to vend our things rather than just arresting us,” pleads another.

One of the boys had just been bailed out of Luzira prison, where he and three others had spent three nights. KCCA officials swooped down on them at Bwaise, a city suburb, and carried them off.

It is obvious that the latest arrest had affected the morale of all the sugarcane hawkers. But they are even more determined to go back to the same dangerous work.

One by one, they finish loading their bicycles and polythene bags and make their way out of the dusty market.  

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